Studios' Summer Movie Dilemma: Postpone Again or Release in Theaters and Streaming at Same Time?

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Studios’ Summer Movie Dilemma: Postpone Again or Release in Theaters and Streaming at Same Time?

If theaters aren’t open again in time for May blockbusters, Hollywood studios have several options for backup plans

With uncertainty surrounding how quickly the COVID-19 vaccine will roll out, Hollywood studios face some tough decisions about what to do with films set for theatrical release in the second quarter of 2021 and even the summer.

Several major films scheduled to open in the second quarter are still up in the air, particularly ones from Disney and Sony, which haven’t finalized their release strategies for the quarter. On Easter weekend in early April, Sony is scheduled to release “Peter Rabbit 2,” a sequel that has been delayed a whole year due to the pandemic. In June, the studio is set to release two of its biggest 2021 blockbusters: “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” and “Venom: Let There Be Carnage.”

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Disney, meanwhile, has the traditional Marvel May tentpole with “Black Widow,” due out in early May, followed by the original Pixar film “Luca” in June. Both films were committed to theatrical release during Disney’s Investor Day presentation last month, and a spokesperson for Disney told TheWrap those release plans have not changed.

“Raya and the Last Dragon” (Disney)

But if the COVID-19 vaccine continues to see a slow rollout or the more contagious B117 variant of the virus keeps hospitals overwhelmed despite the vaccination efforts, hundreds or even thousands of movie theater screens across the country may still be closed by the time these films are set to open. Warner Bros.’ “Wonder Woman 1984,” a tentpole released in theaters and on streaming simultaneously last month, boosted HBO Max subscriptions but failed to reach $150 million in theatrical box office revenue. So a COVID-crippled box office isn’t likely to be able to support blockbusters with hundreds of millions of dollars in production and marketing costs. That means that theaters and studios may need to explore some hybrid release strategies.

One option studios could try is one that Disney is already attempting with its March animated film “Raya and the Last Dragon”: a day-and-date release in theaters and on premium video on demand. Disney has not disclosed how its PVOD strategy — dubbed “Premium Access” — performed when it was introduced last summer with the live-action remake of “Mulan” and a $29.99 price point; nor has the studio announced the price point for “Raya.”

But PVOD has been a success for family animated films like “Trolls World Tour,” “Scoob!” and “The Croods: A New Age” in 2020, and this hybrid strategy would allow Disney to continue experimenting with PVOD without the backlash it suffered from theater owners when it pulled “Mulan” from theaters entirely or when Warner Bros. announced it would put “Wonder Woman 1984” and its entire 2021 movie slate on HBO Max without an extra PVOD charge.

“Morbius” (Sony Pictures)

Another option would be to follow Universal’s example and make a theatrical window-shortening deal with the major theater chains. AMC Theatres CEO Adam Aron has said that his company is willing to offer the Universal deal to any studio, and for the chains that are able to negotiate such a deal, this would likely be the most ideal way to release blockbusters during the ongoing pandemic period, as it would give them a chance to screen major films like “Black Widow” exclusively for a few weeks in whatever theaters are able to open before those who would rather see those films at home get a chance to do so through PVOD. So far, AMC has not announced any talks with other studios about such a deal.

And then there’s the option that studios have had to take repeatedly for the past nine months: Move release dates again. Analysts and studio insiders have told TheWrap that distributors are trying their best to avoid another round of delays, particularly for “Black Widow,” as that would require moves for the entire Marvel Studios slate. But Sony has already done a major 2021 move with “Morbius,” the Jared Leto Marvel film that was moved earlier this month from March to October. Unlike Disney, Universal or Warner Bros., Sony does not have a major streaming platform, and it hasn’t attempted to release a major film on PVOD yet. So it remains to be seen if the “Morbius” move will be a one-off decision or something that will happen with “Peter Rabbit 2” or other films the studio will release in Q2.

As announced last year, Warner Bros. is going full steam ahead with its plans to release all 2021 films on HBO Max at no extra cost on the same day they are released in theaters, making deals with disgruntled talent and production partners to adjust their backend deals based on this new release strategy. Universal, meanwhile, has agreed with AMC and Cinemark to release its films on premium video on-demand as early as three weekends after theatrical release; and in the event that the box office recovers enough that the “Fast & Furious” blockbuster “F9” opens to over $50 million in May, the theatrical exclusive window will be extended to five weekends after release.

Jeremy Fuster